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When I Grow Up
Jonathan V. Post
Radiator clanking and hissing steam like a dragon, icicles
inside the cracked bedroom window again, cars vrooming and
coughing trying to wake up their engines, Mom and Dad clattering
dishes in the kitchen and talking, talking, always talking and I
never understand what they're talking about.
"The Right Reverend Wintercott," Mom's saying, and I wonder
whether the guy was right once in some argument so important
that they never forget his victory, or maybe he's right all the time,
but if that's true, then why don't they make him President? Egg
smell. Coffee smell. Brooklyn dock noise outside, clank and thud
of huge impossible machinery.
I'm out of bed like a racehorse out of the gate, bare feet across
the icy linoleum, grab sox underpants shirt pants from on top of the
radiator where Mom put them so I won't freeze before I'm dressed.
Wake up little brother with a overhand pillow shot, bingo! Or
maybe the guy always turns to the right when he's driving a car,
which would seem to get him hopelessly lost.
"That you? You help your brother dress?"
"Yes, Mom." Bacon sizzle, sproing of toast launched from the
toaster like a space capsule, as I pass the kitchen on the way to
the bathroom. Blobs of Dad's shaving cream in the sink like clouds.
Is that what the weatherman means by "partly cloudy?" Little bits
of clouds in the sky, instead of dirty blankets across the roaring
city? Faucet creaks and shrieks, goes bump bump, Dad's
complained about the plumbing and the cracked window but "rent
control" for some reason stops anything from getting fixed. Water
cold, stings fingers like jellyfish bite, quickly rub dry on towel.
Satisfying handprint on furry yellow cloth.
Dad appears, manly shaving lotion smell, ship on the bottle,
leather odor from belt at the level of my nose, wool pants smell,
voice deep. A deep voice is a dark voice. "What are you doing,
getting the towels all dirty like that? Jeez, am I raising animals
"But Dad, my hands are all clean, just like you want."
He sighs, always says I'm so smart, but acts as if I'm stupid.
Shame. "Look, son, the idea is to rub your hands with soapy water.
The soap helps get the dirt off. Then you rinse all the dirt and soap
down the drain. The towel is only to get the water off your hands.
Not the dirt, get it?"
Big smile. Another mystery explained! "Oh, yeah, I get it Dad.
Just nobody ever told me before, I thought the towel was supposed
to get dirty." He gives me a squeeze as I go by, towards the
kitchen. His hands are huge, like the paws of a friendly polar bear.
Mom wearing the neat Chinese robe with the twisty dragons in
gold thread on ocean blue, that Dad got her in Chinatown that time,
a spatula in hand, pressing bacon between two layers of paper
towels, the most beautiful lady in the world. The pan is
spluttering, refrigerator grumbling, sink sloshing, ceiling creaking
with footsteps from the apartment above, a place as unknowable as
the mountain tops of the Himalayas. The radio is on now, with that
almost-about-the-space-program commercial I love so much:
"Who was the first to conquer space?
that the first to conquer living space
is the Castro Covertible.
It saves you space with fine design
and saves you money every time.
It's tops in the convertible line,
But weren't the Russians the first to conquer space? Dad
waking me up to tell me about Sputnik, baffled when I burst into
tears. "But why?" Waved at the picture books about rockets and
space travel by Willy Ley with illustrations by Chesley Bonestell.
"I thought you loved outer space, planets, all that stuff?"
Through my tears managing to squeak "but I wanted to do it
first." His laughter. Laughter of other grownups in the living room.
Always laughing at whatever I say, and then patting me on the head
and calling me sweet, precocious. Face red with embarassment.
When I grow up, I'll never make little boys ashamed about their
ideas or their vocabulary.
Mom sliding pancakes, scrambled eggs, bacon on my plate.
Little brother clattering around in the bathroom now. Whistle far
out across the harbor of some ocean liner bound for distant ports,
icebergs, pirates, confetti, enchantment. But the Russians have
something to do with Castro, funny hat, curly beard, smoking a
cigar. So maybe Castro did have something to do with conquering
space. Cuba is red. Russia is red. China is red. That's what they
say. Maybe the Russians have red beards, not like Castro, but like
Little brother climbs into his chair, begins gulping down
cheerios like there's no tomorrow. I'm shoveling in the eggs, toast
with Welch's grape jelly, bacon, like the engineer tossing coal in an
old-fashioned locomotive engine. "Don't eat so fast," says Mom.
"It'll give you gas."
That's odd. Gas is what Dad gets in the car, what the guy in the
uniform puts in with a thick black hose and funny nozzle while he
wipes the windows and asks if we want to check the oil. How can
eating food fast make gas? If someone lights a match too close to
me, will I explode? Does that have something to do with olive oil,
salad oil, the man saying check your oil?
Mom is refilling the salt shaker. The big cylinder of salt has a
picture of a little girl with an umbrella carelessly letting the salt
spill on the sidewalk. "When it rains, it pours." Of course. Or is
that another puzzle? Maybe where they get the salt, whenever it
rains, it really rains hard.
"The Late Joe Saperstein," my Dad is saying. Boy, a guy must
have to be late all the time for them to call him that. Or maybe he
was late to something really important, and they never let him live
it down. Late to his own wedding, I think I heard someone say once.
Or was it late to his own funeral? Or maybe it's one of those
things like Junior and Senior, or The Elder and the Younger in
history books. "The Late Joe Saperstein and his son, the Early Joe
Saperstein." Beats me.
He strides out of the kitchen, steam on the inside of the icy
windowpane, ready to go to work, wonder what kind of work I'll do
when I grow up. Train engineer. Fireman. Cowboy. President.
Astronaut. Yeah, definitely an astronaut. Mars, the red planet.
Does that mean the Russians will get there first?
"Don't forget to ask your boss about that raise," says Mom,
sweetly, stepping on the little lever that makes the lid of the
garbage can go up like the seat of the toilet. "Inflation is really
cutting into the budget." Inflation, but isn't that what ballons do?
How can a balloon cut? A ballon knife? Maybe a knife cutting a
balloon, but that would just go pop! and leave a scrap of brightly
colored rubber, slightly dusty on one side.
"Jeez, the boss," says Dad, already at the front door. "What
does that old bastard know about raising a family? He's getting
pretty long in the tooth. Love yah, Honey." Slam. The grinding
rumble of the elevator coming up to take Dad away. Long in the
tooth? What, could Dad work for a vampire? A wolfman?
Me and little brother play Dracula and Wolfman outside, until it
starts to snow, and then cowboys and indians, until he loses one of
his mittens in the middle of shooting me from behind a Studebaker,
can't find it anywhere, slipped right out of the little clip at the end
of his coat sleeve. He starts whimpering about how cold his hand
is. What a baby.
Lunch. Downstairs to the Mara family, never sure how many
kids they have, never sure if there all there at once, some joke my
Dad makes about Catholics that Mom tells him to shut up about,
really nice people though, put honey with little bits of wax still in
it on my toast when they serve a snack. Tastes like crayons.
Melt some crayons on the radiator. Rivulets of red, orange, sky
blue, burnt sienna whatever that is, yellow-green, silver down the
ribs of the wheezing radiator. Mrs. Mara really upset, I'm not sure
why, but never yells at any of the kids or slaps them, so I get off
easy. Nice people. More important, they have a television. Sure
wish Mom and Dad will buy us a television for Christmas, but they
made such strange faces the last time I asked. Better shut up
about it, don't what to mess up the deal.
Back upstairs, play, look at space books, milk and cookies,
build cities out of wooden blocks, pile pillows and blankets over
the table and couch to make a tent, I'm the Lone Ranger and little
brother is Tonto, I'm the spaceship captain and we run across the
craters of the Moon and the red sands of Mars and skid around the
rings of Saturn and put some ketchup on the tablecloth to make the
great red spot of Jupiter, take the metal top off the table and hit it
with a block to make a wonderful gong noise while we sing along
with the commercial on the radio, "Northwest Orient -- Bonnnnggg!
-- Airlines," and the day goes on and on forever.
Mom says that when I grow up, the days and nights won't seem
so long. That they will whisk by like leaves off a tree in the Fall,
or like the pages of a calendar in the movies when a lot of time
goes by between two scenes. Grandad says so too, that people are
born and grow up and marry in the blink of an eye, it seems, and you
can't hardly remember what happened yesterday but things from
back in the 1800's seem as fresh as if they were right there in
front of your eyes.
"The 1800's," I ask, "say, Grandad, does that mean you fought in
the Civil War?" They laugh. Darn it, they always laugh, even
though I know they really love me. Dad's not home from work, for
some reason I can't uncover, but Grandad and Grandma are here.
Mom's Mom and Dad. They laugh all through dinner, though I can't
see the point to any of the jokes, if it is even jokes they're
laughing at anyway.
Wash up. Pyjamas with cartoon moons and rockets. Little
brother has baby pyjamas with feet on them, but I'm a big boy, so
my feet get real cold on the linoleum on the way to bed. Mom
kisses me and little brother goodnight, then goes away. The snow
muffles the sounds of the Brooklyn night, the deep distant hoot of
ships in the harbor, out beyond the Statue of Liberty.
Cool blankets, heavy and comforting press down against me
through the smooth clean-smelling sheets. Already beginning to
get nice and warm. Sleepy. Satin border to the blankets, like
Mommy's silk blouse against my cheek. They're still talking in the
other room. Talking, talking, all the time, long after I will fall
asleep. What in the world is there to talk about so much?
Christmas carol on the radio. "Slee-eep in heavenly peace." Or
is it "Slee-eep in heavenly peas?" Round green peas get nice and
soft when I squish them up with my fork, smooth and sweet on the
tongue. Maybe angels sleep in big bowls of mashed up peas, as soft
as clouds? No, that would get their wings all green. Remember
learning the alphabet, an eternity ago, before I could even reach the
faucet. Thought "LMNOP" was a kind of pea, an elemeno pea. They
laughed at that, too.
I can still hear the grownups talking all the way down the hall,
in the kitchen. Haven't been laughing for quite a while. "mumble
mumble what can I do if he demands the goddamn divorce?"
"Nobody gets a divorce, scandalous, hell of a way to get a trip
to Mexico. What about the kids? Mumble, mumble, broken home?
"Mumble, grumble, but you still haven't told him about the
cancer. What kind of tumor did the doctor say, and what if the
radiation makes you lose your hair? Yeah, yeah, I'm sure he'd stand
by you, at least for the duration of the treatment, but just look
what you're up against."
Goddamn, divorce, cancer. Three words I know are taboo from
the faces people make when anyone says them. Like the words the
big kids said in the playground. Fart. Faggot. Surely those are only
two different pronunciations of the same bad word. There can't
possibly be so many nasty things in the world that there could be
two that start and end with the same sound?
Oh, the words, words, words that grownups are always saying, as if
a little boy wasn't entitled to know what was going on.
The wind is shooshing outside, rattling the TV antennas on the
roofs, one of them clicking, clicking. Like the clock in the belly of
the crocodile that bit off Captain Hook's hand. Scary crocodile,
long in the tooth, maybe clambering scaly legs across the roofs to
get me. No, nothing can get me in the bed when the covers are
pulled up over me. Not even when the lights are out. Think about
angels. Think about astronauts.
Someday I will be able to walk on the Moon in a spacesuit, like
the pictures in my books. When I grow up. That's what really
matters. Never mind the constant mystery of grownup code, right
reverend, rent control, Castro, red Russians, gas, check your oil,
when it rains it pours, late, inflation, long in the tooth, goddamn,
divorce, cancer. "Slee-eep in heavenly peace."
Sometimes I feel so safe and happy, tucked into bed, listening
to family discussions down the hall as I drift off to dreams. But
sometimes I wonder if the secret code of grownups is not just a
stupid bunch of words, but something calculating and deliberate. A
vast conspiracy designed to hide terrible dangers, too awful for the
ears of little kids. What's that phrase that Mom and Dad are always
saying when I ask the questions I need to ask to figure out what's
going on? Oh, yeah. What you don't know can't hurt you.
Boy, I sure hope so.
-- The End --
Copyright 1996 by Emerald City Publishing.
All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without permission.
May be posted electronically provided that
it is transmitted unaltered, in its
entirety, and without charge.